Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Auckland War Memorial Museum (PHOTO: JOEL THOMAS)

A view into the city’s future through the taonga of Auckland Museum

Henry Oliver explores the corridors and changes happening at Auckland Museum, and what they say about Tāmaki Makaurau.

Cities change. It’s part of their essential nature. A product of their population, cities are constantly transforming as they attract new people and lose others. While the hills and the water and sky remain, essentially, unchanged, everything else changes – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but always irrevocably. And, if you hadn’t noticed, Auckland is changing faster than most.

Its growth is the product of increased immigration, a growing New Zealand-born population, and changes in the economy bringing more New Zealanders into service and knowledge-based (rather than agricultural) work. Auckland is currently home to over 1.6 million people, most of whom live within its urban area. As the fastest growing region in New Zealand, that number will reach about 2.2. million in the next 20 years, making up almost 40% of the country’s population. And this great increase will also bring great change in the demographics of the communities who live here.

Auckland’s Māori population will continue to grow. In 20 years, a quarter of all Māori will live here. The city’s Pacific communities are also set to expand; they’ll account for 18% of the population, up from 15% five years ago. But the biggest increase will be in Auckland’s Asian communities, who by 2038 will make up a third of all Aucklanders.

All this population growth will change Auckland in myriad ways. To a certain extent, the city will change to accommodate the people: we will have to change the way we house a larger population, more of whom want to live closer to the city centre; we will have to strengthen our public infrastructure to allow more people to get around a growing geography; we will have to provide hospitals, schools, and parks to more people living closer together. But in other ways, the people will change the city themselves: the food that’s eaten, the languages spoken on the bus, the culture we all experience and participate in.

With all that change surrounding us, one of our key cultural institutions, our museum – Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Auckland War Memorial Museum – is changing too. As a collection of physical taonga and a repository of our collective memory, the museum is uniquely placed to help us both see and come to terms with those changes. And to ensure its centrality in our city’s cultural landscape, the Auckland Museum is a year into a five year plan to keep up with the changing city by future proofing its collection, building and operations.

“Five years isn’t a long time in the museum world,” says Auckland Museum director Dr David Gaimster. “We’ve been looking after Auckland’s heritage since the 1850s and we’ll continue to be here for another 100 years at least. When you’re talking to some of our iwi partners, they think it’s absurd that you’d plan on a five-year basis. For them, it’s about the next generation and the generation after that and the next generation. Five years is a very short horizon for an institution that’s perpetual.”

The plan’s priorities are to reach more people, grow its revenue, engage every school child in Auckland, share its collection and data to facilitate new knowledge, advance the museum’s digital presence, and transform its building and collections.

“Institutions have to change,” says Gaimster. “This city is changing. It’s growing and diversifying. This institution has always been relevant to Aucklanders and we need to be relevant to Aucklanders of the future. So we’re always changing in a dynamic that’s been set since the foundation of the city. We worry when a gallery has been unchanged for 10 years – we have anxiety about that sort of thing. So we’re just going through the next big change out which every institution gets once in a generation or so.

“We’re going to be changing out a third of our public galleries, half our public space, leveraging our digital footprint. There is no such thing as standstill in this business.”

Auckland Museum’s collection is a huge heritage asset. With over 4.5 million objects and specimens, it’s the biggest in New Zealand and one of the biggest in Australasia. Gaimster says the museum’s mission is to provide access to as many of those 4.5 million objects to as many people as possible. That means rotating exhibitions more frequently, finding new ways to present the collection, and reaching out to communities who are geographically isolated from the bricks and mortar museum. “The challenge is how to do that.”

DR DAVID GAIMSTER (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

Like Auckland itself, Auckland Museum has always been in flux. It opened in 1852, in a Grafton cottage. In 1867 it was moved to the Provincial Council Building, which had previously been home to New Zealand’s parliament, on what is now Anzac Ave. Three years later, it was moved again to the Post Office Building on Princes Street on the site now occupied by the University of Auckland. In 1876, the museum was moved to purpose-built premises just down the street, opposite the Northern Club.

In the early 20th century, a new curator began to systematically remake the museum as its popularity increased and it soon needed more and better spaces to exhibit its collection. In 1918, after combining the project with a memorial to New Zealanders lost in World War I, the Auckland City Council granted permission for the new museum and memorial to be built in the Domain and guaranteed funding of the museum out of the rates it collected from citizens. The current site, a hill called Pukekawa, was chosen in 1920 and, following an international competition to design the building and nine years of construction, the grand neo-classical building with its Parthenon-esque colonnades was completed in 1929.

The first major renovation began in the years after World War II, extending the back of the building to include memorials for over 4,000 Aucklanders who died in the war, and to make room for the museum’s growing collections. A semicircular extension at the rear of the building was opened in 1960, which included the Hall of Memories which now also includes the names of those lost in subsequent military conflicts. In 1994, the museum began 12 years of construction and refurbishment, further adding to the exhibition floor space as well as educational, administrative and visitor amenities. The new additions enclosed the previous extension’s semicircular courtyard and included the kauri-clad bowl, home to lecture theatres and presentation spaces, which appears to hover above the atrium.

The view from above the Auckland Museum’s atrium (Photo: Joel Thomas).

Visit the museum right now and you could easily miss that behind the gallery wall major construction is underway. The changes will not only make room for even more exhibition space, but also change the way the museum is navigated, the way people interact with it, and the way the it is funded.

After three major renovation projects over 90 years, the museum had developed into a collection of rooms and passageways that, especially on the ground floor, were often confusing to navigate. The upside was that on a visit intended to include specific exhibitions or objects – the Hotunui meeting house or the Cryolophosaurus skeleton – you could happen upon treasures you may not have even known the museum had. The downside was that finding your way to a particular exhibition (or the cafe or museum store) could be inefficient at best, hugely frustrating at worst.

As well as extending the available exhibition space – including a larger gallery to house visiting international exhibitions – the renovations include a full renovation of the atrium. When completed, it’ll include a new cafe and restaurant, a larger gift shop, and two new corridors running the east and west of the building, connecting the north and south entrances. Off the corridors are new gallery spaces, modernising design aspects of the original building. “You have to keep relevant and stay up with what’s happening,” says Chris Smith, the museum’s head of major works, as we walk over freshly-laid marble tiles. “It has to look modern but stand the test of time for 100 years plus.”

Chris Smith in the Eastern Corridor redevelopment (Photo: Joel Thomas).

The new renovation will make the museum easier to navigate, easier to spend time (and money) in, create more space for touring blockbuster exhibitions and make room for ever-increasing visitor numbers. About 900,000 people visited the museum last year, but that number is growing annually by about 16%, so by the end of the five year period 1.2 million people will visit the museum each year. “Our challenge will be to manage visitation, not getting visitation,” says Gaimster. “We will provide a world-class museum visitor experience, which people expect in a city like Auckland. You expect to find a world-class museum or gallery experience.”

One way for Auckland Museum to become world-class is to host world-class exhibitions, the ones that the museum has been missing out on because of a lack of suitable space, and to have the museum’s collection interacting with the collections of the biggest museums in the world. “We need to be on the international map,” Gaimster says. “We need to bring our collections and our assets into dialogue with our international partners in a way that really hasn’t happened before. And I think both the Auckland Art Gallery and ourselves have the vision for bringing relevant connections to Auckland to create a new dialogue of international cultural exchange. That’s going to be exciting for the city. So in the next few years, you will see ancient Egypt coming to the Auckland Museum, and we’ll have an interesting conversation around the ancient world and contemporary cultural dynamics. I see that as part of a cultural exchange, to bring Māori and Pacific connections to a broader international audience as well.”

With public funding for cultural institutions flatlined in most countries around the world, Auckland Museum will need to generate more of its own income to support its growth while maintaining its standards. This means making the museum a place where people want to spend time, and not just in the galleries. So expect higher quality food and drinks, a better retail experience, more room to spend time socialising with the people you came with. “The museum is not just an educational experience, it’s also a museum or gallery experience that is becoming increasingly compelling,” says Gaimster. “It is about coming to engage with new content and spending time in the institution. I’m having lunch, consuming the retail. And it’s an experience to share with people. That experiential relationship is really, really important for museums of the 21st century.”

All of which should lead to higher revenues, gradually increasing budgets while decreasing the percentage of the museum being funded by Auckland ratepayers. “It all comes back to our responsibility to serve Aucklanders,” says Gaimster. “We are a publicly funded cultural organisation and our public funding comes from ratepayers of Auckland – we’re a metropolitan institution, not a national institution. So my commitment is to grow our relevance to the Aucklanders who pay 75% of our costs. That’s a really important relationship. How can we improve our service for those who fund us, who come from across the city, from all its communities? It’s really important that we remain relevant and connected to them.”

David Sanderson, project leader of collection imaging (Photo: Joel Thomas)

One of the major ways the museum is looking to remain connected to Auckland and the world is through its rapidly expanding online collection. While many institutions have made charging for access and use of their digital collection a key part of their income generation, Auckland Museum wants to share our content with the world. Gaimster tells me that if you want to get a high-quality image of the Treaty of Versailles you’ll likely use Auckland Museum’s copy because other museums with a copy, like the United States Library of Congress, charge for use.

“Our digital presence is growing very considerably and that community is global, not just local,” says Gaimster. “We are working on many, many different dimensions and that defines the modern museum business model of the 21st century. Our content is now widely accessible. We’re one of the leading digital museums in the world in terms of providing free access to our content. That puts us amongst the top five digital museums in the world. And we constantly invest in improving that access.”

David Sanderson is the project leader of collection imaging and as such is responsible for digitally cataloguing the museum’s collection of 4.5 million objects and species. He works with the team at the digital imaging hub, a black-walled room filled with cameras, lights, infinity walls, pop cultural trinkets and priceless artifacts.

“Digitisation en masse like this is a relatively new thing,” he says. “That kind of volume, specifically with the intention of sharing it online to more people, more of the time, has never been done before. I would say that the way we’re doing it here is probably amongst the top 15 museums anywhere in the world.”

The museum has about a million digital records online, including 650,000 photos. The team uploads 8,000 images a month, about 300 GB of data a day. Many of the images captured in a given day are online, and freely available for use, that night. There’s no processing of the photographs. They are archived as raw files to, as far as possible, avoid future digital obsolescence. “We have to be able to care for these digital pieces for 50, 100, 200 years,” Sanderson says.

Most items are photographed four times: the front, back and sides, including measurement and colour references. But with certain items of particular interest, especially those from the Māori and Pacific collections, items are shot in much greater detail to record the techniques that were used to make the objects – the intricacy of the weaving, the stitching, the dying, the carving.

“What we’re starting to hear from the Pacific Collection Access Project next door is that as our images reach those communities, they’re starting to reconnect with techniques that were lost several generations ago. Contemporary artists are now able to see how they did it and start learning from them.”

Collection imaging in action (Photo: Joel Thomas)

The Pacific Collection Access Project is a three-year long programme to open a dialogue between Pacific communities and the museum’s collection of approximately 30,000 Pacific taonga. The project is bringing in elders, craftspeople and knowledge-holders from within the communities of 13 Pacific island nations that are represented in Auckland, giving them access to the museum’s collection and asking them to share their knowledge so taonga can be correctly identified and represented for future generations.

“The project is about giving back the voice of our ancestors,” says Barbara Afitu, the project’s community engagement facilitator. “As a daughter of Samoa, I realise how important it is, but a lot of our taonga haven’t had their voices for a while. Probably for a few generations. This is very much about getting the elders to come in and give back the knowledge and give back the voice as well.”

For the past year and a half (and for at least the next 18 months), Afitu has invited communities into the museum, one at a time. This project has been such a beautiful platform to start the education. A lot of our communities had no idea what we had in the whare, and it actually belonged to them. Even just shifting that korero around ‘this museum is your museum, your ancestors and your treasures actually live here’. It’s a matter of people reaching out and saying they want to come and see them and we can make that happen.”

The first community to participate was the Cook Islands. The museum staff were nervous: they didn’t know how it’d look like or whether they had the correct protocol in place. “We didn’t know – do they want to start with a karakia?” remembers Afitu. “And a Cook Island mama walks in and looks around at all of them and goes ‘Wake up!’ and claps her hand. ‘Wake up, I’m here now!’”

By engaging with those communities to provide deeper historical context to their collections, the museum has found out that some items had been misidentified or mislabelled, sometimes decades ago, and no-one with a connection to the community had been there to correct it.

“Through this work, we’ve found out that a bowl we thought was used for one thing wasn’t actually a bowl and was an implement for something else,” Afitu says. “We had a particular sword which everyone was looking at and one of the elders said ‘All that needed to do was touch your hand and you would die.’ And everyone was asking ‘What plants would you guys use back in the day?’ and then one of the matua, who wasn’t saying anything, he comes up to me towards the end and whispers in my ear and says, ‘It’s not the plants, it’s the words that were laid upon it.’”

Barbara Afitu, Pacific Collection Access Project community engagement facilitator (Photo: Joel Thomas)

It’s not just a fact-finding mission. A big part of the kaupapa of the project is giving communities, some of which haven’t historically been regular visitors to the museum, access to their own taonga.

“It’s incredible how someone will be standing there who’s a quarter Tongan and a quarter Niuean and be looking at the taonga and getting emotional and not know why,” Afitu says, recalling how moving some of the community visits can get. “This is their whakapapa. I hear the heaviness of ‘I don’t know who I am’, the real heaviness of cultural identity. People saying ‘I don’t speak any of the reo’ but I go ‘Yeah, it’s still yours, you still have that connection because one of your ancestors made it, so even just creating that space and being open to having that korero to help them unpack this crazy world. We’re trying to do this so that your great-great-grandchildren can come and breathe on the same taonga that you’ve been able to breathe on.”

The experience of seeing their cultural objects honoured through its exhibition at the museum has allowed these communities to share the importance of heritage they have around them every day.

“We had one mama come in and saw all the labelling and said ‘I’ve got all these treasures at home and my kids don’t even know what it means, so next Saturday I’m going to get my children and my grandchildren and we’re going to do our own labelling so when I’m gone they’ll know who this came from and what it was for.”

The Pacific Collection Access Project is already being heralded by museums around the world as an example of how museums can connect with their own communities and re-evaluate their collections, especially in relation to engaging with indigenous communities, who have historically been denied access and authorship to their own histories, in a meaningful and not tokenistic way. “A lot of the knowledge that is gifted is very sacred,” says Afitu. “We have to challenge ourselves as a museum and an institute to have the right framework to honour that sacredness or, if not, how can we help our communities create a framework outside that they can have full control?”

Ultimately, Afitu hopes that the project will allow people to feel a part of the museum – that it’s theirs, that they’re welcome. “It has been about the creation of a safe space in a big way. To say, ‘Come, nau mai, haere mai. Come and say hello.’”

Auckland is changing. It’s getting bigger – by population and geography – and it’s getting more diverse. And with it, the Auckland Museum is changing – to better reflect Auckland’s present and to anticipate, and participate in, Auckland’s future. With an evolving relationship to its collection and its audience, a new commercial vision, and a major renovation of its gallery space and atrium, Auckland Museum is re-emerging as a space where people can come and see the changing face of their city – reflected in its past, its vision for the future.


This content was brought to you by Auckland Museum. Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum is Auckland’s place of gathering, welcome and orientation, where knowledge of our taonga are shared and the many stories of Tāmaki are explored.

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